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Monday, July 16, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.
'Gold': loneliness at the top for an Olympic cyclist
By by Tyrone Beason
Special to The Seattle Times
by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, 325 pp., $27
In British novelist Chris Cleave's new novel, "Gold," the cloistered world of Olympic-level cycling in England forms the backdrop for a gripping story about what happens when winning is no longer everything.
It's 2012. Best friends and veteran cyclists Zoe Castle and Kate Argall must compete against each other for what might be the last time in their careers to see who gets to race at the upcoming Olympic Games in London. Their relationship is muddled further by lingering tension from a crisis in their friendship that unfolded years earlier.
On top of that, Zoe is suffering from a major life crisis of her own, while Kate and her fellow Olympic cyclist husband, Jack, are worried about their young daughter Sophie, who's battling leukemia.
There is plenty of built-in drama with this set-up, but "Gold" shoots for something more meaningful. Cleave's story is not just an exploration of the strategic choices people make to achieve victory; it's also about the confounding calculations they make for happiness and redemption in everyday life.
Zoe, 32 and already an Olympic gold medalist and celebrity athlete, is the real stand-out in this story. Maybe it's her singular focus on winning races despite the possible consequences. But while Zoe's list of velodrome wins is long, her personal life is stunningly lacking.
Cleave plays the "It's lonely at the top" theme for all it's worth, showing us in dazzling detail how success has left Zoe feeling alienated.
She has a body that she and her lovable coach Tom have "tuned to know its heart rate to the nearest beat," but she can't seem to discern her own best interests."Off the bike she was like a smoker without cigarettes, never sure what to do with her hands," Cleave tells us. She ponders the "insane amount of emotion" a day in Kate, Jack and Sophie's world requires, as if she could never handle parenting a sick child herself.
But clearly, Zoe wants more than to feel as if she's a "ghost" drifting from home to cycling arena where she trains back home again, with no one around to keep her grounded. Her life has become a solitary loop, a course with no finish line or worthy prize to collect.
The ritzy, high-rise apartment in the north of England she bought with earnings from a lucrative endorsement deal with Perrier is a metaphor for this feeling of disconnectedness.
As she moves from the living room to the kitchen back to the living room, "she wondered if this was supposed to be her life now, moving alone between these designated areas, inhabiting them according to patterns of usage envisioned by the architect." She spots a copy of Marie Claire with her portrait on the cover and recoils over the magazine's description of her as "fiercely determined," "ruthless and unstoppable" and "driven by her demons."
"None of it felt like her," Cleave writes.
As Zoe gazes out her window one day, she catches a glimpse of an olive tree being lifted by crane to a green space on a terrace above her unit, a symbol of her own rootlessness spinning in the breeze.
The only thing she has to look forward to is competing and winning her next gold at the London Olympics, which would extend her fame and fortune, if not bring true contentment.
As the shattering complexity of Zoe and Kate's relationship comes to light, one can't help but root for both of them.
While "Gold" lacks the strong narrative voice of the title character in Cleave's breathtakingly beautiful last novel, "Little Bee," there's rich material here. It's fascinating to watch cyclists with superhuman abilities measure time in thousandths of seconds while trying to keep up with the more mortal rhythms of life, longing and love.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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